Bypass the Stars is coming April 16th, 2021! Click here to pre-order your copy today!

Bypass the Stars – Chapter One

Of the thirteen methods Frankie Hartiger had perfected for breaking into Sublevel D of Pathbound Enterprises Tower, scrambling the facial recognition panel on the Warren-700 security bot was usually the simplest.

Tonight, Frankie had been hunched in front of the malfunctioning heap of junk for so long that her legs were going numb. The new interworld transport operator’s disembodied face hung suspended in midair before her, like a ghost returned to avenge a bad ID photo.

It was a hologram—a decoy Frankie had created to fool the dunce cap of a guard into opening the doors. She’d been doing this for months, using the trick to explore forbidden areas whenever she pleased. But this time, the bot wasn’t budging.

When the real Liz Han dropped to a crouch beside her digital double, Frankie jumped. She hadn’t even heard the doors open.  

It was an awkward way to meet someone for the first time. Even by Frankie’s standards.

The real Liz had a green yoga mat tucked under one arm and cursive tattoos on the backs of her hands: If You on the left, Build It on the right. She wore her black hair longer than it was in the picture, her ponytail tied low and flipped over her shoulder.

“Every time I sit for an ID photo, I sneeze,” Liz said.  

Frankie deactivated the digital Liz. The best course of action, she decided, would be to act like she was supposed to be here.

“I’m Frankie Hartiger,” she said. “You secured a patent on citywide driverless car systems when you were nineteen.”

At fourteen, Frankie figured she had time to beat that milestone.

“You’re the daughter?”

A rhetorical question, obviously. Frankie hadn’t made newsworthy contributions to the Hartiger Family Legacy—not yet—but she’d watched herself grow up on celebrity-zine covers. Family time, faked. The product of a talented photo collagist and a non-disclosure agreement as strong as soldered iron.

Fake or not, people liked to read about the first family of interworld travel. The only family of interworld travel. In the decades since her grandparents had succeeded in hopping between universes, no one else had come close to figuring out how they did it.

Frankie didn’t even know.

Liz might.

“You’ve been directing commercial space flights since you were twenty-six,” Frankie said.

“Don’t tell me you know about the burger-flipping gig I had in high school, too.”

Frankie did. She could have listed even more stats. Liz was thirty-three, Chinese American, five-foot-six. She’d also won eleven semi-professional digi-bowl championships, until she’d given up the sport seven years ago. Perhaps after recognizing the game as a mind-numbing waste of her significant mental capacities.

“I research every new high-ranking employee,” Frankie said. “You actually deserve to work here.”

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

“It is. You patched the software on the security bots. Right? I’m the only other person who ever caught that glitch.”

Liz allowed the bot to scan her face, then straightened as the glass doors slid open. “You aiming to be a commercial space director by twenty-six?”

“I’d rather build the rockets.”

Liz started through the doors. “Come on.”

It almost felt like a trick, like Liz might change her mind and slam the door in Frankie’s face. But Frankie wasn’t about to waste an authorized visit to the transport floor. She scooped up her trusty toolkit and followed.

Mom and Dad didn’t spend enough time on Earth to bother with interior decorating. They’d stuck with the grounded-spaceship aesthetic that must have seemed appropriate when Frankie’s grandparents had built the place. Metal walls, metal floors. Blinking blue lights ringed the raised control deck in the center of the room that operated all transport functions via touch screens and augmented-reality models.

Twisted together like an over-stylized puzzle at the far end of the room, the doors to the interworld transport dock gleamed.

Liz shoved the chairs to the perimeter of the elevated console and unrolled her yoga mat. “You watch Mars Colony?”

Disappointing. Liz seemed smarter than reality vids. “I don’t watch any shows, and before you ask, I only do virtual reality immersion for school assignments or history lessons.”

The murder of Caesar was particularly good.

Liz sat on the mat and leaned against the railing that encircled the platform. With a few touches to the console, she pulled up a screen in augmented reality. The opening sequence began with its familiar blast of red particles—anyone who’d ever glanced at a billboard in New York City had seen that part—and the miniature cast members paced into view, waving and posing. What did they do for screen tests, check to see how good these people looked in spacesuits?

Frankie had a feeling this was not what her parents had had in mind when they’d hired a genius to run the interworld transport.

“Good, then you’re not caught up.” Liz patted the mat. “There’s a guy this season who wants colonies on every planet in the solar system. He keeps saying he’s going to Venus next. It’s hilarious.”

In real life, and with an occasional exception, human interaction was an unavoidable nuisance. Why would Frankie want to spend more of her time watching fools stumble around on TV? “They shouldn’t be sending those people to Mars,” she said. “If he thinks Venus is habitable, he might leave the dome without his suit or something.”

“The show is in its eighth season, and no one’s died. The producers keep an eye on them.”

“It’s a waste of resources.”

“It’s science for the masses. Come on, sit.”

Frankie sat. She wished she’d brought a sweater.  

After the first episode, Frankie feared for the future of humanity.

After the fourth, she started to see Liz’s point. A little bit. The show did use  people-slash-characters to show how the colonies worked.

“My parents should do this with Suhainn,” Frankie said.

She could suggest it to them. The idea might be good enough to earn her way back to their good graces—and maybe earn a ticket to Suhainn, too. They’d never brought her to any of their other worlds.

Before Liz could answer, the com unit buzzed to life with a shower of static. “Pathbound, do you copy?”

Mom. She never called before 2300 hours. Once, and exactly once, Dad had reported thirty-nine seconds late. He’d never been trusted to call on his own again. She knew, because that was reason number one for her trespassing down here. She liked to hear her parents’ voices as they radioed in from other worlds.

Something was wrong.

Liz was already leaping for the table. “Copy, Cindy. Go ahead.”

A burst of static. “We’ve got a situation. Retrieve the box for Sunset Protocol.”

In all her years of spying, Frankie had never heard her parents ask for a protocol box. The word ‘box’ was something of a misnomer, since they were actually metal cylinders that lined the walls of the storage room—an excellent hiding spot for daughters who wanted to listen to her parents as they called in at 2300 hours every night. She’d hide, and she’d stare at the protocol names, from Asteroid to Zenith, imagining the kinds of disasters Mom and Dad might have planned for with the protocols. What failsafes they’d designed. She’d never quite been able to talk herself into disturbing one of them, in case its retrieval might give her away.

Liz hopped off the console and ran for the supply room. Maybe Mom and Dad were testing their new T.O. with a drill.

Or maybe Frankie should pick up the com and speak to her mother. Just in case.

When Liz stepped out of the supply room, her face was pale.

“What does it say?” Frankie whispered.

Liz shook her head, held a finger to her lips.  

Thunder roared into the operations center, a sustained vibration that rattled up through Frankie’s feet. She always pictured the tower trembling when the transport arrived, the city pausing its business to watch the floors shake. A scientifically improbable daydream, given how carefully the tower was designed.  

Still. It reached into her bones.

The transport was back, and it was early. Sunset Protocol, step one? But Liz shook her head as she scanned the box’s contents, the transport’s arrival clearly as baffling to her as it was to Frankie.

Liz stuffed the box into her pocket and grabbed Frankie by the shoulders, shoving her across the room and into the supply closet. “Stay here.”

Frankie didn’t need the panic on Liz’s face to convince her. She had no excuse for her presence on the dock. She stayed, peering out while Liz sprinted to the console and opened the doors to the transport dock. The puzzle spun open with a dramatic twirl, revealing Frankie’s mother and father. Behind them, the transport shuddered.  

Whatever had gone wrong, it was not enough to upset the perfection of Mom’s hair, a sleek waterfall that poured into a dark pool of curls. And Dad, so tall his sun-stained head nearly brushed the door frame.

“We agreed on Sunset,” Mom said.

“Meteorite Protocol is more than sufficient,” Dad replied. No trace of his usual humor, no hint of a smile. He wore his flip-flops, despite Frankie’s many warnings about the dangers of poor footwear.  

Liz stood on the console, fingers whitening around the protocol box. She looked shocked, her lips parted, eyes wide.

For a second, Frankie didn’t understand why. Yeah, her parents were arguing. A crack in their usually flawless performance, a slice of reality. Rare enough to warrant curiosity, but hardly worthy of the horrified look on the transport operator’s face.

And then Frankie saw the shoe.

Behind her father, on the grated metal floor of the transport dock, was a brown shoe. And it was connected to a leg.

Frankie moved to the other side of the door and risked sticking her head past the frame.

A boy lay at her parents’ feet, motionless, his skin paper white. As she watched, a spot of blood on his neck swelled to a bubble and burst, trailing across his throat like a slit.

No one checked on him. No one even looked at him—except maybe Liz—and he obviously needed help. Did her parents know he was bleeding?

Frankie abandoned her hiding place.

She made it all the way across the room before her parents noticed her and fell silent. She ignored their stares and bent over the boy, setting her toolkit on the floor to take his wrist between her fingers. His skin was cold, but his pulse rushed strong and even. She let out a breath.

“Did you know she was down here?”

Frankie tuned Mom out and replaced the boy’s hand gently by his side. When she did, something tumbled out of his grasp.

It might have been her imagination, but she thought she felt him flinch when it skittered to the floor. It was a stone, flat and round, with a hole punched through the top. Frankie picked it up and turned it over in her hand, running her thumb along the smooth edges.

A stone from another world.

A boy from another world.

The stone had markings etched on one side, an intricate series of crisscrossing lines that reminded her of the Celtic knots her grandfather used to draw. The markings on the boy’s stone might have been language or design. She couldn’t tell.

Frankie tucked the stone into the boy’s shirt pocket, so he’d have it when he woke.

He smelled like the sea.

Convinced for now of his safety, Frankie looked up to find her parents staring at her. “What’s Sunset Protocol?” she said.

Mom peeled off her jacket. “All right. Meteorite. Take him up.”

Dad scooped the still-unconscious boy into his arms and carried him off the transport dock.

“Who is that?” Frankie asked. “Is he from Suhainn? What happened?”

“What happened,” Mom said, her voice clipped, “is that he nearly got himself killed. He’s lucky we were there to save him.”

Frankie tried to imagine what kind of scenario in supposedly safe Suhainn would have resulted in a need to bring the boy to Earth. Had he been acting as a spy? Betrayed the realm somehow? Committed a crime? Had he murdered someone?

As far as Frankie understood them—which admittedly wasn’t very far at all—it wasn’t exactly like her parents to intervene in a situation like that. Though what did she know, really? She was their daughter, and she had to break into restricted areas just to hear their voices. It was hardly surprising that a Suhainnan would secure more of their concern than she did.

As if anticipating the stream of questions about to burst out of Frankie’s mouth, Mom raised a hand. “That’s all you need to know about it, Francesca.”

Mom shoved her jacket at Liz, and Frankie bristled on her behalf. Liz was the transport operator, not a laundry bot, though now was perhaps not the time to point that out. “You’re fired,” Mom said.

“Liz didn’t know I was here,” Frankie said quickly. “I swear. She even closed my usual entry points.”  

Mom still didn’t look at Frankie, instead keeping her attention locked on Liz. “Fine. Francesca will provide you a list of her loopholes. You’ll run security diagnostics on everything else.”

As if that would keep Frankie out for long. Mom should know what she was capable of.

Liz nodded, and Frankie wondered why she’d accepted this job when she could be doing anything, anywhere. Pathbound might be prestigious, but working with her parents? Not worth it.

After eight months and eleven days spent off-world, Mom hooked slender thumbs through her belt loops and turned to face her daughter.

Funny how Frankie dreamed of Mom’s attention, yet wanted to run when she finally obtained it.

“The Hartiger name is bestowed, Francesca,” Mom said.

The refrain might as well have been tattooed on Frankie’s heart, she’d heard it so many times. But there was nothing she could do to prevent her mother from finishing it.

Mom was already heading for the door. She cast the words over her shoulder, an afterthought. Just like her daughter. “You earn your place in this family.”

Frankie hugged her toolkit to her chest as Mom left her again.

Bypass the Stars is a YA sci fi novel that will be available on April 16th, 2021! Click here to pre-order your copy today!

About Kate Sheeran Swed

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