Navigating the Stars

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Chapter One

"The answer is no, Lyra." My mother utters her favorite--I swear--phrase.


"End of discussion."

Arguing is usually futile. But I'm not about to give up. Not this time.

We are having dinner in our housing unit. I'm picking at my reconstituted mashed potatoes, wilted broccoli and mystery protein...meat...while my dad scans his list of packing supplies on his portable, only half-listening to my mother's efforts to convince me that traveling to the new planet will be a grand adventure.

"Besides," Mom says almost breathless. "We'll be the first archeologists to assess the discovery. This new site on Planet Yulin has the potential to explain who transported Terracotta Warriors to twenty-two different planets. We're getting close to an answer."

I gotta admit, my parents are the experts with a capital E on those life-sized Warriors made with terracotta. It's why they've been asked to relocate to the new planet. As for finding an answer, I'm not as confident.

"Think about it, Lyra," Mom continues. "Over two million Warriors were custom-made on Earth by ancient Chinese craftsmen and transported by an unknown alien race to other worlds. We're bound to find evidence of who they were--or are--and why they used Earth's clay and people to create the Warriors. Why not make their own?"

Dad looks up. "The clay's from Earth, but there's no evidence there were made on Earth."

"The Chinese calligraphy on them is all the evidence you need," Mom retorts and they launch into an all too familiar debate.

I tuned them out. Too bad the archeologists don't know why they needed all those Warriors throughout the Galaxy. Since we've yet to discover any other alien artifacts or sentient beings we don't have anyone to ask.

And this recent discovery is all the way out on the edge of Explored Space. Yeah, you gotta say it with those capital letters since it's such a big deal that we've traveled so far from Earth. But what really boggles the mind is we're still in the Milky Way Galaxy. Space is big. Really big.

When my parents finish, it's my turn. I ensure they are both paying attention by clearing my throat. Loudly.

In a reasonable tone, I say, "It's exciting that you have a new site to research. You'll have all the top scientists eager to explore with you so you don't need me. I can remain here while you travel to Yulin. After all, I'm seventeen Actual years old--only a mere A-year until I'm of legal age."

Mom bangs her fork on the table. "I said end--"

I keep right on going. "Staying on Planet Xinji, I'll be closer to the university--onsite learning is much more effective than distance. Doctor Wendland's research on learning strategies has proven it. And Lan's parents have already agreed to let me stay with them."

Mom and Dad exchange a look, which meant they were doing that silent communication thing that parents do. I study them while I wait, sitting on the edge of my seat and resisting the urge to jiggle my leg with nervous energy.

My dad runs a big hand through his short sandy-brown hair, making it stick up at various angles. He normally appears younger than his forty-six A-years, but a sadness pulls on his face, aging him. "We're going to lose her in a couple A-years anyway, maybe we should consider her--"

"Absolutely not." Mom's brown-eyed gaze focuses on my father with such intensity, I'm surprised he doesn't burst into flames. Even though she is younger than my father by two A-years, my mother is in charge of our family. "I can't...not so soon after...Phoenix."

Before you ask, yes, my parents named me and my brother after constellations. Kinda funny considering we can't see either of those constellations unless we're on Earth. My parents have some really strange ideas at times.

The mention of Phoenix effectively kills any support I might have gotten from my father. He ducks his head and I wilt.

"Don't ask again," Mom says in the I've-decided-and-nothing-will-change-my mind-tone.

It's not fair, but arguing is pointless and will result in my cataloging thousands of broken Warrior shards as punishment. Appetite ruined, I push my now cold food away and head to my bedroom.

"Li--" my father calls after me.

I keep going. Our unit is small and narrow with a kitchen, common room, two bedrooms and the bathroom. Not much space is allocated for housing in the base. The scientists' labs occupy the majority of the place which is where most of the people living here spend all of their time anyway. We aren't a colony, but a research facility charge with assessing the entire planet. The base is filled with chemists, biologists, geologists, physicists, astrophysicists, meteorologists... Pick any "ologist" you can think of and they're probably here, including archeologists like my parents.

And those ologists have been drooling happy since the announcement of the New Discovery. As for me? Not so much. While they've been talking in excited, high-pitched voices and making plans for the trip, I've been dreading launch day. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad for my parents. They've dedicated their lives to puzzling out this great Warrior mystery and I've no doubt that they'll eventually solve it. Well...maybe a little doubt.

However I'm tired of leaving my friends behind and I need to find my own passion. Not sure what that is yet, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't include researching ancient artifacts.


My room consists of a narrow bed, a few drawers, a desk, a chair, a screen and a terminal to access to the quantum network...well, a fraction of it--it's like being confined to the shallow end of the pool--very frustrating.

When the quantum network--Q-net was invented back in 2066, it changed everything. Earth's technology advanced at a sizzling pace, and inventions like the Crinkler engine, which allow us to travel through space super fast was designed using the Q-net. Now it's used to keep track of...well, everything and everyone, but it's most important for knowing the precise location (and time) of all the space ships. Oh, and all the information collected from all the planets is stored within its amazing vastness.

But admittance to this scientific wonder is limited. Since I'm underage, I'm allowed to access the school programs, game programs, entertainment, and communications. At least the Q-net is able to send text based communications between planets in Actual time. Can you imagine waiting decades for a reply?

I flop onto my bed and stare at the images of my friends from the other planets my parents dragged me to before Xinji. They fill the screen. The reality of space travel--the dreaded time dilation--stares back at me. Many of my friends have died of old age by now, and my two friends from our last assignment on planet Wei-Quo are now in their fifties. Thanks Einstein.

A musical ping sounds. The images fade into the background as the screen displays an incoming communication from a Miss Lan Maddrey.

"Accept," I say.

The words disappear and my best friend's face appears.

"What did they say?" Lan asks, but she notices my morose expression. "Oh, sorry Li-Li!"

Only my father and closest of close friends call me that. I used to love pandas, okay? My father thought it was cute and that's how I got the nickname.

Her eyebrows smash together and furrow her brow. "Did you tell them about Doctor Wendland's research? I can send them the Q-cluster location to the paper. And my parents--"

"Won't matter," I say.

"Did your mother utter the three dreaded words?" she asks.


We share a moment of silence. Lan's blue eyes shine more than normal as she nibbles on the blond hair at the end of her French braid. She's a year younger than me, but we bonded over our mutual love of Diamond Rockler--the greatest singer in the galaxy. Our only disagreement was over who he was going to marry, me or Lan, and that was three A-years ago. I wouldn't have gotten so close to her except my parents assured me that this was their last assignment. Sigh.

"My brother works for the port," Lan says. "You can sneak off the shuttle and he'll hide you until it takes off. By the time they discover you're missing, they can't return."

An interesting idea. My heart races with the possibilities. I could start my own life. I hope to attend Brighton University on planet Rho, a mere four Earth-years away. We measure distance between planets by how much E-time passes while you're traveling not by how many Actual years pass. Which means if I stay here, I'll be fifty A-years older when my parents arrive at Yulin, but they'll only be ninety days older. Crazy right?

Regardless, I'd never see my parents again, which is why they won't leave me behind. Not yet anyway. They're still grieving over Phoenix and they'd been hoping I'd catch the science bug and stay with them, but I am tired of hanging around ancient things that have been buried for thousands of E-years. My excitement over running away fades.

"Thanks, Lan, but I can't do that to my parents."

She nods and gives me a watery smile. "I understand." She heaves a sigh, then lowers her voice. "When should we plan your..." Lan hesitates. "You know what."

I glance at my door. It's closed, but I sit at my desk and insert the entanglers into my ears--they resemble little round plugs, but they allow me to link directly to the Q-net through the terminal. Then I engage the privacy mode. If my parents walk into my room, they'd see a blank screen, but I can still see and hear Lan--another super cool invention courtesy of the Q-net.

How about at my last required soch-time? Do you think Jarren can fool the snoops? I think.

Of course. Who do you think created the dead zone in the back corner of the supply bay?

I laugh. You mean the kissing zone? I heard Jarren took Belle there for a smooch fest.

He did not!
Lan's cheeks turned pink.

Oh? Do you have better intel?

Shut up.

A knock at my door prevents me from replying. Lan says good-bye and I disconnect and return to my flopped position on the bed. I might be resigned to leaving, but that didn't mean I'd let my parents off easy. "Display wall art," I say to the screen. Only when it once again shows images of my old friends, do I say, "Come in."

Dad pokes his head inside as if expecting to be ambushed. "Is it safe?"

I huff. My temper isn't that bad. Well...not since I was seven A-years. "Only if you brought something sweet."

He holds his hand out, revealing a plate of chocolate chip cookies. A warm sugary scent wafts off them--fresh baked! My empty stomach groans in appreciation.

"Then it's safe." I'm not above bribery.

He enters and sets the plate down on my desk. He has a box tucked under his right arm. "You okay?"

"I'm gonna have to be. Right? Unless you're here to tell me you changed your mind?" I sit up at the thought.

"Sorry, Li-Li. We're not ready to lose you." My father hunches over slightly as grief flares in his brown eyes.

My older brother decided to return to Earth two years ago when he turned eighteen A-years. Earth is about ninety-five E-years away. So by the time Phoenix arrives on Earth, we will all be dead and Phoenix will still be eighteen. Guilt over my earlier snit burns in my stomach.

"You just have to go on one more assignment with us then you can decide what you want to do," Dad says.

"It's all right." I gesture to the box. "What's in there?"

He sets it down on my desk. "A puzzle."

I've fallen for that before. "Are you sure it isn't a bunch of random rubble?"

"No. We think we have all the pieces, but my assistant swears no one can possibility put it back together." He raises a slender eyebrow.

Appealing to my ego, he knows me so well. "Let's see."

Dad opens the box and pours out what appears to be shards of pottery--all terracotta, ranging in sizes from a thumbnail to six centimeters. I scan the pieces. They'd once formed a specific shape, and I can already see it has edges. Could be a piece of armor. Or a shield. Intrigued, I sort through the fragments, flipping them over and matching colors.

My father hands me the adhesive. "I'll let you prove Gavin wrong." He pulls my straight black hair back behind my shoulders and plants a kiss on my temple. "Thanks, Li-Li."

"Uh huh." The air pulses as he leaves. I arrange the pieces--about a thousand or so. There's markings on most of them. Odd. I group the ones that appear similar together. Reconstructing artifacts is actually fun. Not the I-want-to-do-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life fun, but challenging and satisfying to make something whole again.

No one was more surprised than I. Trust me. I was roped into helping my parents a few years ago when they noticed that, after attending my required socialization time, or rather soch-time and doing my school lessons, I had plenty of free time. I argued there was a reason it was called "free." It went over as well as my bid to stay on Xinji.

I was assigned all the chores no one else wanted to do like sweeping and running the 3D digitizers--each of the thousands of Warriors have to be scanned and catalogued. But one night I found a half-finished reconstruction of a face and, well, I finished it in a couple hours. My parents made a big deal about it and now when there's a jumble of fragments that is declared "impossible" by the team, it comes to me. Not that I'm that great. There have been plenty of boxes filled with bits that I couldn't get to go together. A 3D digitizer could do it in minutes, but we only have four so using them for repairing broken pottery is not the priority.

This piece is tricky. Usually once I connect the edges, the rest is easier to match. But the shape is...octangular? Strange. Lan messages me while I'm working.

"It's all set," she says. "All our friends have been informed." Her voice is heavy with dismay.

I glance at her. "Thanks."

There's an awkward silence.

"What's that?" she asks.

"At this point, I've no idea."

"No. The markings on it."

I peer at the symbols etched into it. Silver lines the grooves so they stand out from the reddish-orange clay. Lan should recognize them. Her parents are the base's language experts and cryptographists. "Uh...Chinese calligraphy. Probably the name of the craftsman who built it." While life-sized and made of terracotta, the extraterrestrial Warriors have quite a few differences from those discovered in China. One example, in addition to the craftsman's name, these are also covered with alien symbols and glyphs that no one has been able to translate.

"That's not Chinese."

"Are you sure?"

"Lyra." Her flat tone indicates she's insulted.

"Okay, okay. So it's one of those other alien symbols"

She shrugs. "I haven't seen markings like those before.."

"Well consider two million Warriors with what...sixty some markings per Warrior, makes that..." Ugh, I suck at math.

"The symbols are not all unique. And they still haven't catalogued them all."

"Don't give my mother any ideas," I say, pressing my hand to my chest in mock horror. But the reality is the with limited funds, personnel and equipment the Warrior Project is a slow moving beast.

Lan laughs. I'm gonna miss that light trill.

"Seriously, Li-Li. It's different. It might be important."

"Important enough to keep my parents on Xinji?" Hope bubbles up my throat.

Lan straightens with enthusiasm. "Maybe. When you finish it, bring it to my mom."

"Will do."

It takes me the rest of the night to complete the piece. I'm not exaggerating. The faint smell of coffee wafts under my door as my parents get ready for their day. I stare at the...shield--for lack of a better word because it's a meter wide and a meter long, three centimeters thick and octagonal (of course--the aliens have a serious addiction to the shape...maybe they are sentient octagons? Hmmm).

The shield has a spider web of fine cracks and a few fragments missing here and there--standard for reconstructed objects, but the eight rows of markings are clear. Each row has eight different symbols, but they appear to be similar--like they're siblings with similar swoops or curls. Then another row also has eight unique glyphs that complement each other--sorry it's hard to explain. But one row looks like Chinese calligraphy, but I'm not sure.

What I'm certain of is, I've been living on Warrior planets all my life, but I've never seen anything like this before. Excited, I rush out to get my dad. He sitting at the table, sipping coffee and reading from his portable. My mother is at the counter.

Dad spots me. "You're up early."

"Come on." I tug on his hand. "You have to see this!"

He follows me to my room.

Mom trails after us. "Lyra, did you stay up all night?"

Her tone is disapproving so I don't answer her. Instead, I sweep my hands toward the octagon with a flourish. "Ta da!"

Both my parents gape at it in stunned silence for a solid minute. My father reaches toward it, but I stop him.

"It's not dry."

He snatches his arm back as if he's been burned. When my parents still don't say anything, I say, "This is important. Right? Something different?"

The silence stretches. Now it's getting weird.

"Yes," my mother says finally. "Different."

"Lan said her mom, Doctor Maddrey would want to see it."

"Oh, yes," my dad says. His voice is rough. "I expect there will be lots of people who would want to see this."


There is a great deal of excitement from the scientists in our base over the strange object with the rows of markings. Theories about them fly faster than a Crinkler engine through space. The one that generates the most gossip is the possibility that the octagon is an alien Rosetta Stone even though it's made of the same baked-clay as the Warriors. Lan's parents are put in charge in figuring out the mystery.

"I hardly see them," Lan complains on night.

She's lying on her bed and I'm sitting on her chair as we listen to Diamond Rockler. His voice is like honey--smooth with a thick sweetness. Rockler's heart-melting lyrics fills the small room as a video of him plays on her screen. He's talented and gorgeous and intelligent--that's just not fair. Some people don't even get one of the those qualities.

"If anyone's going to figure out what it means, it's them," I say. Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing less of my parents. They've been asking me to join the crews of people searching through the million fragment piles in hopes of finding more octagons. More data, more data, my mom's always saying. They're drowning in data, but no one's made any connections. I think they have too much data, but that's me.

"Messages were sent to the other Warriors planets," Lan says. "The other language experts might have some ideas on how to translate it and they're all looking for their own Rosetta Octagon."

"As long as it keeps everyone busy," I say, smiling.

Lan sits up. "Lyra Daniels, you're not thinking--"

"I am." I insert my tangs into my ears and access the Q-net via the two sensors that had been implanted in my brain when I turned ten A-years old. Staying entangled in the Q-net for long periods of time is flirting with insanity. So everyone must be able to completely disentangle. It's the reason terminals are needed to interact with the Q-net. It's funny, to me anyway, that the terminal is a bland plate built into the desk. It's some type of rare metal, but otherwise it's boring in appearance.

Lan's terminal has the same limits as mine, but I've learned how to mask my identity and bypass a few security barriers.

"You're going to get into trouble,' Lan says. But it doesn't stop her from inserting her own tangs to trail me.

"Don't you want to find out who Belle's been hanging out with?" I don't listen to her answer. Instead I concentrate. I view the Q-net as a sphere with a zillion layers like a universe-sized ball of yarn. And, while I'm blocked from most of the layers, I can...find holes in the security almost by feel--it's a strange sensation--and worm into an area that I'm not "technically" supposed to be able to access. We call it worming.

Video feeds from the cameras around the base pop up.

"Oh my stars, Lyra! You're going to end up in detention if security discovers you."

"Big if. Look Mom, no ripples."

"How did you..." She sighs. "Jarren right? He taught you? You're getting better at worming."

I scan the images. People bustle through the hallways. Some stop to talk. The labs techs are busy doing what ever they do. No sound. That would be too creepy. And no cameras in private units. That's an invasion of privacy.

"Found Belle." I hone in on the camera in the canteen. "She's flirting with that chemistry tech--what's his name."

"Trevor, but he's too old for her. He's like twenty-three A-years," Lan says. "How do you know she's flirting?"

"She's flipping her hair and eyeing him as if she wants to eat him for dessert."

"For dessert? Really? That's gross."

"Ah youth. So innocent."

She smacks me on the arm with her pillow. "And you shouldn't be spying on your friends."

"Oh? Should I spy on someone else?"

"No." She pulls out her tangs. "We should be planning Jarren's surprise birthday party."

I groan. "That's not for another hundred and eighty days."

"Planning," she says with authority. "Will be the key to success."

I disentangle from the Q-net and we brainstorm a few ideas. "I think we should have it in a spot he'd never suspect," I say. "Like the middle of a hallway. Or outside the base!"

Just then, Dr. Maddrey pokes her head into Lan's room. "Have you finished your school work?" she presumably asks Lan, but she gives me a pointed look when Lan shakes her head no. Dr. Maddrey leaves the door ajar when she retreats.

My cue to leave. "Better get going, I've a physics test tomorrow that I need to ace now that I'm applying to Brighton University."

"It's two years until the next Interstellar Class ship, what are you going to do for that extra year?" Lan asks.

"I think I'll intern in a bunch of the labs see if anything catches my interest. Chemistry and biology might be fun. Dr. Nese says he always needs help with keeping the weather instruments clean." And any chance to go outside is always taken. "I'm sure I'll find plenty to do." Even if I have to spend the year reconstructing damaged Warriors. It'll be worth it. And once I get my degree, I could be assigned to a colony planet and interact with normal people.

Lan bounces on her bed. "And my parents already agreed that we can attend the university together even though I won't be eighteen yet!"

The best part. We share a grin. Then I wave a good-bye to the Maddreys and return to my housing unit. The place is empty. Not a surprise, my parents have been busy with the new find.

I settled next to the terminal and entangle with the Q-net, accessing the physics lectures. After two hours, I'm doing head bobs and my stomach growls. However my parents are still not back. I check their work schedules--yes, they've given me permission--to see if I should wait to have dinner with them or to just go to the canteen. Scientists tend to get engrossed in their work so the base has a cafeteria for those too busy to cook a meal. I've seen techs carrying trays back to labs for their bosses.

They both have late meetings and a few "evening" appointments. It doesn't matter that Xinji's sun is still high in the sky, every single colony planet and Warrior planet as well as the people traveling in space ships ALL follow Earth's clock. Days have twenty-four hours. Years have three hundred and sixty-five days. The base's lights and window shutters are programmed to keep Earth time. However we stopped using the names of the months and days--that would be silly. Instead, we track the year and day. Today is the three hundredth and fortieth day of the year 2471, otherwise referred to as 2471:340.

I was born on 2337:314, but I'm seventeen Actual years old, which means I've lived seventeen of Earth's years. But since I traveled to two different planets and made two time jumps, one hundred and thirty-four E-years have passed during those seventeen years I've been alive. Boggles the mind, doesn't it?

I scan my parents' agendas idly, noting it'll be a couple days before we have another family meal. Odd that they should be that busy. And why are they meeting with Doctor Gage and Doctor Jeffries tomorrow, they don't normally interact. I straighten as my heart sinks. My guts churn as I study their itineraries, trying to dismiss my suspicions. When I reach 2471:360, I'm on my feet. I yank my tangs out and sprint from my room.


I'm breathless by the time I reach the archeology lab. My mother is in her office with Dr. Bernstein. He's a meteorologist. What the heck? I interrupt them. Manners are the least of my worries.

Mom's annoyance changes to concern when she see's my face. "I'm sorry, Ben. Can we finish this later?"

"No need, Ming. You've already convinced me."

My mother shakes his hand. "I'll send you the contract."

"Great." He gives us a jaunty wave.

Mom's polite demeanor drops as soon as he's out the door. She shuts it and turns to me. "Lyra, what--"

"Tell me we're not still going to Yulin." I practically shout.

"Of course we are, why did you think we weren't?"

"Because of the find. I thought you and Dad would want to study it."

"It's exciting, but other than authenticating and dating it, it's not our area of expertise."

"But..." A tight knot forms in my throat, cutting off the rest of my protest.

"That's why we have linguists and cryptologists, Lyra. And I'm hoping the find will allow the Warrior Project to hire more. Besides, Doctor Natalia can handle directing the techs with the reconstruction of the damaged statues on Xinji and searching for more octagons. We've uncovered all sixty-four Warrior pits and found no other artifacts alien or otherwise on Xinji. But on Yulin..." Her eyes shone.

I stopped listening as despair claws at my heart with its sharp talons. The pain making it difficult to breathe.

We're leaving.

We're really leaving.

And there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

I've no memory of the trip back to my room. It took every bit of effort not to burst into tears. But once alone, I dove onto my bed and cried into my pillow. Lan and I would never attend university together. She'd have to plan Jarren's party without me. I'd never see her again.

When I gain control of my emotions, I message Lan.

She takes one look at me. "What happened?"

By the time I spit out the news, we're both crying.

"This is worse than before," she sniffs. "It's just cruel to give us hope and then yank it away."

I agree. "To be fair--I know, not helping--but my parents never said we were staying. I just assumed we would."

"So did I." She wiped her face. "I'll let our friends know it's back on."



Why is it when you're dreading something, the time just flies right on by? I swear I blinked and my last twenty-one days on Xinji disappeared. The Interstellar Class space ship entered Xinji's orbit yesterday--the dreaded 2471:360. I've a day left before I board the shuttle. It only takes me an hour to pack my stuff.

Now all I have left to do is attend my funeral.

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