The Black Stars (Excerpt)

Mason Stark has a problem with minding his own business. This worked to his advantage when he helped bring peace between humans and the alien Tremist. He’s now considered an intergalactic hero, but that hasn’t made school any easier. With his new reputation, any bully with something to prove wants to fight him.

With the new peace treaty on shaky ground, Mason is called upon to infiltrate the Tremist school for soldiers. Mason’s bound to find trouble, especially now that he has the power to channel electricity through his Tremist gloves, but when his new classmates begin to disappear under mysterious circumstances, trouble might find him first. The Tremist are working on a secret project, but what Mason discovers goes beyond that, to an ancient, powerful enemy.

Gideon Smith amazon buy linkThe follow-up to The Planet Thieves, Dan Krokos’ middle-grade novel The Black Stars is available October 14th from Tor Books.

 

 

Chapter One

Mason Stark had a problem with minding his own business. This problem had resulted in seven disciplinary actions since he arrived at Academy II just three months ago. As his friend Tom Renner had kindly pointed out, according to the Earth Space Command rulebook, Mason would be kicked out of Academy II if he received an eighth disciplinary action.

Mason would instantly become a citizen and be forced to leave the Academy and his friends forever.

That didn’t stop him this time, of course.

Six of the seven infractions resulted from confrontations with older cadets. Academy II took six years to complete, just like Academy I had. The “first years” were thirteen years old, like Mason, or about to turn thirteen. The “last years” were eighteen, or about to turn eighteen. And they were big. And smart.

And jealous.

Because Mason and his friends had saved the day. Or at least, they’d brought a kind of tenuous peace between the Tremist and the humans. They were the most famous group in all the worlds. Reporter shuttles were permanently parked in low orbit over Mars, where Academy I and II were nestled in the foothills of Aeolis Mons, a mountain near the equator. The reporters weren’t allowed to land, but they were able to take pictures from orbit. For the first month, the newsfeed had a story every day with an overhead picture of Academy I and II, which were only a few kilometers apart, accompanied by headlines such as

YOUNG HEROES BEGIN FIRST YEAR AT ACADEMY II

or

DOES MASON STARK CAPTAIN HIS OWN SHIP?

The rumors were nonsense, of course. Mason Stark did not captain his own ship. He was a student, with much to learn about command—he was the first to admit that. But humanity desperately needed heroes. Mason and his friends just happened to be the most available. Which wasn’t exactly fair, in his opinion. How was he supposed to live up to the legend he already was? He wasn’t even fourteen yet, and there were already movies and books about the exploits of the “Egypt 18.”

And so Mason was not entirely welcome at Academy II. Respected, but not welcome. It did not matter who started the six fights that had led to six of seven disciplinary actions, or who finished them—Headmaster Oleg did not permit fighting outside of combat classes, period. Mason had thought he’d escaped the old man, but the headmaster had been promoted to Academy II right along with Mason.

It was 13:00 on Friday when Mason knew he’d be getting his eighth disciplinary action. He was in the gym used by both Academy I and II. The gym was a fat cylinder twenty levels tall, right between both academies. Cadets took a threeminute track ride through a tunnel in the mountain to reach it. Each level had different features to accommodate different needs.

Mason had just entered level 8, the workout room. He was sweaty from his last class of the day—Advanced Combat Techniques III—so it made sense to get a quick jog in before showering and meeting Tom, Stellan, and Jeremy in the mess hall. The quarter-mile track ran around the entire circumference of the cylinder.

He was stretching out his hamstrings when he heard a commotion from the other side of the gym. It sounded like someone cried out, but Mason couldn’t see through the forest of gym equipment. He paused, listening hard, until a familiar fwump sounded across the gym: someone had turned on a resistance pad. Then came a mean laugh—a cackle, really, and a forced one at that.

Mason made his way through the equipment, his footsteps quiet. Half of the gym was regular workout equipment— dozens of identical machines that could morph into any configuration to work out every muscle group. The other half was open space, but the floor was tiled with square pads. The pads created force fields that would provide resistance, so you could exercise without machines. Nobody used them. They made your hair stand up for the entire day, and too much use would create itchy rashes on your skin.

The fact that someone was using one now was a red flag all by itself.

Tom’s words came back to him now: “One more slip up, Stark, and it’s game over. You’re out. Be smart for once?”

Mason had argued back: “They’d kick me out? After all the good we’ve done?”

To which Tom had replied, “Do they seem to care about that here?”

“We’re too valuable to the ESC. What’s better for recruitment than the Egypt 18?”

Tom considered that, rubbing his chin. “Do you really want to find out how serious they are?”

Mason did not. Maybe they wouldn’t make his expulsion public, just stick him in a room for a year or two. Who could know for sure?

But Mason’s feet were driven across the gym anyway, and soon he was standing in the very middle, where the equipment met the line of pads.

Exactly six older cadets were gathered around the closest pad. The stripes on their sleeves said half of them were fifth years, the other half, sixth years. Mason was a first year again. But he recognized these fools. Just two weeks earlier, Mason found his locker completely filled with anti-bio fluid. The cream-colored gel had spilled out on his feet, a gelatinous wave that ruined his pants and boots. The news spread quickly through school, and everyone knew who did it— Marcus Jones, a sixth year. He was on a fast track to command once he finished his last year and joined the Earth Space Command as an officer. Marcus was mean in a way Mason didn’t understand. Cruel for the sake of cruelty. But he was smart and obedient and respectful… to his superiors.

No one would tell on Marcus, not ever. Mason couldn’t either, as it would be seen as a betrayal to his fellow cadets. But once Marcus broke the wrist of Kevan Desoto, a smallish cadet who talked too much, Mason knew he had to do something. So he hacked into the central computer, found the surveillance footage of Marcus throwing Kevan to the ground, and uploaded it to the wall screens in the refectory during lunch. It wasn’t telling on Marcus—the footage was there. Mason just showed everyone.

For hacking into a restricted system, Headmaster Oleg awarded Mason with his seventh disciplinary action. Marcus’s punishment was not made public.

Near the pad, the older cadets were gathered around a boy pinned on his side by the force field, knees pushed up tight to chest. The cadet was tall, but a first year like Mason, with white-blond hair and lanky limbs. It was Stellan, one of his best friends, one of the cadets who helped him bring the new peace. A member of the Egypt 18.

Anger struck Mason like lightning, and just as hot. He could only stand there as his pulse jacked, and a mechanism in his sleeve began to buzz, warning him to keep his vitals low. It was supposed to train cadets to maintain control in any situation—A clear head is a living head, they told him.

So Mason wanted to give the cadets a shot at doing the right thing. He wanted to try having a clear head. Stellan would appreciate that. Stellan had always told him to use his words, not his fists.

The cadets were chuckling to themselves while Stellan fought the force field. He couldn’t move an inch. But his eyes could still see. They rolled toward Mason, and the cadets followed his gaze, turning around.

“Steak!” Marcus said with joy. “Steak” was the stupid nickname they’d given him. Mason didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, but his current theory was that it played off his last name, Stark. “So glad you could join us. No surveillance cams in here. Did you know that?”

Mason stepped forward, closing half the distance. Two of the fifth years visibly backed away but then seemed to catch themselves and stand tall, shoulders back, chests puffed up a bit.

“Please remove the force field,” Mason said. That was their one chance. He asked them nicely. He even said please.

Marcus stared at him with bright, intelligent eyes.

In unison, the cadets began to laugh. It sounded forced, like before.

“Mason, just go…” Stellan said, struggling to speak. It was clear the force field was too tight, and he was having trouble breathing.

“Another of the Fabulous Five,” Marcus said. “We are honored by your presence.” He made a low, mocking bow, and the others did the same. Marcus had curly black hair that was a little too long by ESC standards—just a centimeter— which Mason assumed he got away with because he was a rising star.

The Fabulous Five was a name the media invented for Mason, Tom, Merrin, Jeremy, and Stellan. Merrin Solace was Mason’s best friend since before Academy I, though he hadn’t seen or talked to her since that day on the Tremist space station, when the treaty was signed. He thought about her all the time, though. She was on the Tremist homeworld, Skars, with her father, the Tremist King.

Mason said it one more time. “Please remove the force field.”

“Or what?” Marcus said.

Mason didn’t say anything.

Marcus waited, then rubbed his hands together. “Tell you what. You just walk on out of here, and we won’t make you get down next to him. How does that sound, hero?”

“Please, Mason,” Stellan said. “You’ll get kicked out. What’s more important, huh? I can take this.”

A lightbulb seemed to go off above Marcus’s head. His eyes widened, then narrowed, and a slick smile spread across his face. “Ah, wait. You have seven demerits, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Yep, seven. I’ve been keeping track. Why do you think you’re at seven, Steak? You think it might be because of me?” Marcus hated Mason because he was direct competition that happened to be much younger, and that was before Mason had humiliated him by showing his cowardly act to the whole school.

He’s even more dangerous now, Mason thought, but he didn’t say anything out loud. Sometimes that was better. The mechanism was still vibrating against his arm, but not as intensely. He was allowing himself to stay cool, but his anger was bubbling just under the surface.

“I think it might be because of me. And I think you might want to walk away right now, unless you want to become a civilian before dinner.”

Marcus was correct. No doubt about it. But Mason didn’t care about that. He cared about what was right. And leaving Stellan behind was not right.

Mason let his Rhadgast gloves flow down from his forearms to cover his hands. A Rhadgast had given him the pair of lightning gloves on the Tremist space station, along with an invitation to join their school, if Mason wanted to learn the truth about his parents, which, other than Merrin, was all he thought about.

His gloves had been confiscated almost immediately. ESC scientists wanted to study their properties. The gloves appeared broken; when worn, they didn’t conform to the user’s hands and arms, and they didn’t carry a charge. A story in the media appeared:

MASON STARK SEEN WITHOUT HIS RHADGAST GAUNTLETS

with the subheadline:

What does this mean for peace?

The gloves were immediately returned to him, and photographers were allowed into Academy II to take pictures of him wearing them. Then Mason was commanded to keep the gloves in his locker at all times, which of course he didn’t do.

Each night he practiced with them for an hour, like he would with any weapon he wanted to master. He would lie in bed and feel the connection. That was all: he never brought electricity to the surface. The gloves came back to life once he put them on, but he was careful not to tell anyone, except for his crew. After weeks of practice, he was able to control the shape of the gloves. He could make them peel back from his hands and turn into bracers that went from wrist to elbow. Under his long-sleeved black shirt (standard ESC uniform, along with black pants and tall black boots) the gloves were undetectable. But always there. They made Mason feel safer, in a way, and were a constant reminder of his goal to find the Rhadgast once again.

Marcus’s mouth dropped open once Mason’s hands were covered in the purplish material, a kind of grippy rubber. They appeared violet-blue under the harsh gym lights.

“They work…” one of the fifth years breathed.

Marcus swallowed, recovering quickly. “You wouldn’t dare.”

No, Mason wouldn’t. To attack a cadet with his Rhadgast gloves would ensure he was kicked out of the Earth Space Command for good. Beyond that, Mason didn’t want to imagine how the story could be spun, or what it would do to a peace that had been shaky from its inception.

So instead, Mason pointed his index finger at Stellan’s pad and let a single tine of violet electricity snap out from his fingertip. It shot between the grouped cadets and struck Stellan’s pad. The pad hissed and sputtered and then flickered off…and so did all the other pads in the room. The new silence was deafening in a way; before there had been the hushed whisper of power coursing through circuits, and now there was nothing but a few cadets breathing a little too loudly.

Marcus was still smart, cruel or not. He swallowed. “I have witnesses, Steak. This is it for you. I have three demerits. You have seven. It’s over.”

Stellan stood up on the pad and brushed himself off. His hair was sticking straight up, and he wasn’t smiling. He looked sad.

Marcus started to say something else, but Mason just pointed at his chest and said, “Leave,” with as much authority as he could muster.

Marcus held his gaze for another defiant moment, then said, “Let’s roll.” They walked away slowly, swaggering. Marcus threw a final glance over his shoulder, and Mason saw a fire burning in his one visible eye. There’s an enemy I’ve made for life. Then they were gone.

Mason exhaled. Marcus wouldn’t tell on him, not without receiving another demerit himself.

Stellan walked over, and Mason let his gloves slide back over his hands until they became bracers again. Mason held out his hand to shake, but Stellan just pulled him into a hug. “You risked a lot,” he said.

“We’re crew,” Mason said, as if that explained everything. And, really, it did.

Stellan smiled. “How’s my hair?”

Mason allowed himself to grin for the first time. “It’s seen better days.”

“Darn. You’ll have to help me fix it. I’m going to talk to Juniper Mass at dinner. She kept looking at me in Cross Gates IV today.”

They started toward the exit, and that’s when Mason saw Marcus and his cohorts being cuffed by a security team, who must’ve been watching from a hidden cam. Marcus was already trying to talk his way out of it. He was pointing at Mason and Stellan. The five security guards didn’t look amused.

Mason was contemplating the other two gym exits—they hadn’t been seen yet, so escape was still a possibility, but escape to where?—when he heard a voice behind him.

“Mason Stark. You are in serious trouble.”

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