Faddle: Chapter Smapler: Paradox By A.J. Paquette (28)

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Survive One World. Save Another.

A. J. Paquette

Chapter Sampler

A. J. Paquette

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Random House

New York

Keep Reading for a Sneak Peek . . .

One

00:27:52:29
This is how she wakes. There is a heavy pressure on her chest and a dull weight in her legs. Her mouth feels like cotton and the air is stale. Her eyes are glued shut. No . . . not glued. She thinks they might open, if she tries. She tries. Her eyes are open now, but she can’t see any difference. The room—­ is it a room? —­ is pitch-­ black, a solid wall of dark. Flash! A pulse of red light explodes in the darkness. She clamps her eyes shut again, but the brightness scours the backs of her lids. She takes quick, shallow breaths as the burst of light fades. Flash! Another takes its place, then another.

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Behind closed lids, her eyes are starting to adjust. She forces them back open. Fiery light-­ shadows streak around her, shadows that look alive. Flash! She shifts her head and looks down, trying to assess her condition in these quick bloody snapshots hemmed in by viscous darkness. She’s strapped to a padded chair with armrests and a propped-­ up leg support that goes out past her feet. A dark band stretches across her upper thighs; another two crisscross her chest. She arches her body, pushing against the bands, but there’s no give. She can feel her skin starting to bruise and she slows her frantic efforts. There has to be a way out of this. Flash! The room is as round as a bucket, skinny with a high, dome-­ shaped ceiling but otherwise empty. She digs her fingers into the strap across her thighs and tries to pry it up. Nothing. With her fingertips she follows the band to the edges of her chair. Like a seat belt, maybe that’s what these are? But she can find no spring-­ release button. Flash! What’s going on? Flash! Where am I? Flash! The pulses are coming from somewhere to her left. She reaches out in the direction of the light, feeling for the wall.

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There! She finds something flat and round. A button. She pushes her palm against it. The belts around her chest and the wide one on her thighs snap open. There’s a sudden sharp pricking below her waist, almost like something pulling out of her skin. She catches the band that was on her lower body and sees a row of long, thin prongs along the underside. On the front of the belt is a row of fine print, one label assigned to each prong: elimination . . . fluid . . . life support . . . A violent shudder ripples through her body. What is going on? Letting go of the belt, she bends forward at the waist and stretches her ankles and knees, groaning as her muscles shift position for the first time in what feels like quite a while. A second later, the red light on the wall goes off and a flashing green one takes its place. She turns her head to the left and sees that the green light is coming from a second button, right next to the first. Is this some kind of a game? Her heart beats faster as she presses the new button. Bright white light floods the room. She throws her hands over her eyes, but the light pushes through her fingers and cuts into her. Too bright. Too white. And that’s when she notices. Her mind is white, too. Blank. It’s strange, because she can picture and name all the objects in her little room—­ the chair, the walls, the seat belts. She stretches her mind and thinks of cars, computers, pepperoni

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pizza, ice-­cold root beer. But all these objects float like ghosts in her mind. There’s no one in the car. The root beer has no flavor. The computer is static, its screen dark. She knows about all these things, but she doesn’t know them. They are not attached to any memories. What about her? Where does she come from? She blinks under her hands. Who am I? With a shock she realizes that she has no idea. Here’s what she knows about her world: A tall, round room. Bands across her thighs and over her chest. A red light that pulses and a green light that is pressed, and then a white so bright it cuts through everything else. That’s it—­ her history, her memory, her now. This is the first chapter of her life. Panic rises up inside her, squeezing like a fist. She stays sitting for what seems like a long time, hands still shielding her eyes from that too-­ white light, while somewhere nearby a very low sound goes tick, tick, tick. Gradually, the quiet rubs away at her fear until the sharp edge dulls and her heart rate begins to slow. Sliding her hands off her face, blinking a little as her eyes adjust, she looks down at her body. She doesn’t recognize it, not the lanky arms or the long legs or the lumpy vest over a gray jumpsuit that covers her from neck to ankle. The heavy-­ duty black boots. The little white square that’s pinned to her chest.

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Wait. The what? The nametag! She is wearing a nametag. It’s small, an ordinary slip of paper inside a flimsy plastic label, held in place on her jumpsuit with a silver pin. She tugs the pin free with trembling fingers. Yes. The paper has a word on it, three printed black letters in the upper right corner: ana. That’s the only thing on the tag—­ the rest is completely blank. But it’s enough to start. Ana. The name is a wave that lifts her and a hand that holds her and a boat that carries her away. It’s a compass that says: Head this way! It’s a banner that tells her: All is not lost. She recognizes it immediately. It’s her own name. Feeling somehow stronger with this knowledge inside her, Ana sets the nametag down on the armrest of her chair and turns her attention to the tiny room. The walls are checkered like a quilt, each square padded with velvety red cushion and edged in polished gray metal. The ceiling, studded with fluorescent lightbulbs, rises to a narrow peak high above her, and is also lined with puffy cushioning. She doesn’t see the belts that had been holding her. Did they retract into her seat? She looks down over the side. The chair sits on a pole—­ like a dentist’s chair . . . but have I ever gone to the dentist? —­ and underneath is a yawning black space. A grille walkway surrounds her seat and bridges the gap between her chair and the far wall, where there’s a door set into the red padding. A door! It’s an odd oblong shape, like some kind of a portal or a hatch, and made of solid-­ looking metal.

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Ana slides off the seat and plants her feet on the walkway, her legs shaking a little at first. As she stands all the way up, her hand brushes something on her right hip: a tough nylon sheath with a smooth, dark handle at the top. Instinctively, she reaches across her body with her left hand, grasps the handle, and pulls it free to reveal a twelve-­ inch dagger made of a matte, nonreflective metal and with an edge so sharp it looks like it could cut steel. What? Heart hammering, Ana slides the blade back into place. She glances down at the bulky vest she’s wearing—­ bulky because it hides more weapons? Ana looks back at the door. She has no idea where it leads, but it’s suddenly clear that there will be no lighthearted surprise party waiting for her on the other side. Still a little unsteady on her feet, she crosses the grille walkway to the door. A bar-­ ­ shaped handle bisects it at hip level; to one side of the door is a small, dark screen. A fingerpad. Without thinking, Ana presses her index finger against the screen. Her stomach is churning. Making fear soup, she thinks, and the thought makes her smile. In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding her, Ana’s heart lifts. Her mind might be broken, but that expression had to come from somewhere, didn’t it? Maybe there are more fragments of the past drifting around her mind space, bits of her old self waiting to drop in at some random moment, when she least expects it. The fingerpad beeps, and she hears a series of clicks and

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whirrs from inside the door as the locking mechanism begins to disengage. She reaches for the handle. And that’s when she sees it. On the lower half of the door there is a mesh pocket, and sticking out of the pocket is the edge of something that looks like paper. Ana reaches down and pulls the paper free. It’s an envelope with one word written in careful block print, the same word that was on her nametag, her word: Ana. Inside the envelope is a sheet of paper. She slides the sheet out and unfolds it. Her eyes run over the handwritten words.

Ana:
You have now arrived on Paradox. I realize that you must have questions, but I can give you no answers at this time. You will not remember who I am, nor will you recollect the events that have led you to this place. That is as it should be. You have undergone a procedure known as surgical retrograde amnesia. You have no memory of your past, and you are on unfamiliar ground, but your body has been well trained. You have been sent to Paradox with a specific mission: Experience. Discover. Survive. Experience your surroundings; follow the preset path of your journey with a careful eye to anything that might be worthy of observation. Discover what is hidden, looking below the surface for things that might

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be out of the ordinary. And survive, for if you do not then all of this will be in vain. Your body is its own record. Be mindful of the countdown. Your world—­ our world—­ is on the brink of disaster. Your mission must succeed. If not, I cannot vouchsafe your future. With regards toward your best success,

J. R. Pritchett

Ana stands still for a long time, trying to process all this new information. Paradox? J. R. Pritchett? Surgical retrograde amnesia? None of it makes any sense. They’re all just words, ideas with no weight behind them—­ nothing like her name, which came alive when she saw it. Looking down at the paper again, she notices something else. Scribbled at the bottom in smudged black ink—­ written in a shaky hand, different from the main note—­ are two letters: O+O What is that supposed to mean? What does any of it mean? She starts to crumple the letter, then stops and folds it over and over until it’s a flat square that can fit in the hollow of her palm. She finds a pocket on the front of her suit and slides it inside. The panic in her gut, the cold emptiness of all she doesn’t know, is so strong it’s almost numbing. But she has to get moving.

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Broken or not, there’s only one way she’s going to find ­answers. The fingerpad flashes green, and Ana grasps the door handle. The bar moves easily under her weight. With a gentle hisssss, then a click, the door unlatches. Ana pushes and the door swings open. She is greeted by an endless swath of dry brown earth. Giant boulders that are gray and black and dull green and even coral pink are scattered across the landscape. She realizes she’s looking from a height, and as she pushes the door wider, she sees it’s a ten-­or twelve-­ foot drop to the ground. Off ahead a cliff cuts across the horizon, so far away it’s barely more than a haze in the distance. And the sky . . . she tilts her head back. The sky is pink! It’s as if she were inside a huge peach, the top half of the world streaked with ribbons of orange and yellow and red—­and, yes, cheek-­ blushing pink. Over it all hangs a watery yellow sun. What is this place? The wind hits her then, a gust of chilly-­ fresh air that takes her breath away for a second, and she leans into it, pushing the door out until it’s flat against the outer wall and it latches into place. That’s when she sees it. Over the horizon way off to her left, low over the distant cliff wall, looms a second sun.

11

Two

00:27:08:13
Two suns? That’s not right. And yet, there they are, one dim and high overhead and the other lolling white-­ hot on the ­horizon. Is this a sign that the strings inside her are broken worse than she’d thought? Or is it something else? Somewhere else? She should be seeing buildings. She should be seeing trees. There should be signs of roads and cars. Planes, maybe. Instead, there’s just dry, empty land, and the wind beating against the heavy door, and two suns pulsing in the raspberry sky. She thinks about the letter and its talk of exploring, of discovering, of trying to save her world, almost as if—­ You have

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now arrived on Paradox—as if ­ that world that needed saving were somewhere else. Somewhere not here. No way. That’s ridiculous . . . isn’t it? And yet the more she thinks about it, the more the idea fits, sliding into another one of those gaps in her mind with a perfect fit. Gripping the doorframe, Ana steps up onto the threshold, teetering a little as the wind whips across the doorway. She considers the drop and wonders what to do next, but even as she thinks it, her right hand is reaching toward a heavy-­ duty switch in the doorframe. She flips the switch in a practiced motion, as if she’s done it countless times before, and a mechanical whirr fills the air. A second later a staircase is unfolding beneath her feet, the base hitting the ground with a resounding boom. Your body has been well trained, the letter told her. She’s just starting to understand what that means. She steps onto the top step and finds it surprisingly solid. Well trained or not, her legs are shaking, and for a few moments she focuses on tensing and releasing the muscles until she gets herself under control. These are running legs, she suddenly knows. She has a flash of a foot hitting a puddle, water arcing out in a brown swell; athletic shoes slapping on concrete; bare toes tamping down soft black rubber. Thud, thud, thud. There’s no body or face attached to the image, but she senses the movement in those legs and knows they are hers. It’s not a memory, exactly, but it’s a piece of her all the same. A ripple of warmth floods her chest.

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Carefully, Ana climbs down the staircase. Only when she reaches the ground does she allow herself to turn and look at the place she’s left. Two suns . . . A pink sky . . . She has a definite idea about what she’s going to see, but still—­ a thrill courses through her to observe the tall, conical body, solid and gleaming as it rests on its round, squat bottom, nose pointing to the sky. She’s just climbed out of a rocket ship. Metallic red, scratched up in places, the rocket reaches four or five times her height. Still, it doesn’t seem very big for a ship that has apparently carried her to this alien world. To this . . . She forms the word in her mind, then says it out loud because it really is beyond astonishing: “Planet. This alien planet.” Mentally judging the rocket’s size against the tiny chamber she woke up in, Ana slowly circles the craft. On either side of her door are two sealed portals. But as she comes around to the rear of the rocket, Ana stops short. There’s another door, half open in the wind, with another mechanical staircase clawing ­ on to the rocky soil. Her heart leaps into her throat and she covers the ground in seconds. I’m not alone here, not alone! She’s halfway up the stairs before she’s even fully realized what she is doing. She swings the door wide to . . . Nothing. The compartment is identical to hers, down to the grilled walkway and the black leather chair and the bright white light filling a space lined with red cushioned walls. But there’s no

14

sign of life, not even an indentation in the seat where a body might have rested. Ana steps all the way inside, and the heavy door falls shut behind her. The disappointment crests like a wave, all hope and possibility of companionship slipping away in the undertow. She feels it roaring straight for her and immediately knows that if she lets it in, she will be paralyzed. She makes a split-­ second’s decision: No! Ana has no idea what kind of person she was, or is, but one thing she does know right now: Loneliness and self-­ pity are not only self-­ indulgent but dangerous. You have now arrived on Paradox. She’s maybe alone, definitely damaged, possibly deranged—­but she’s here. On this alien planet. She has no one to rely on but herself. Ana turns back toward the door. As she starts to push it open, a sound outside makes her pause. It’s a grinding noise, a MRRROOOOAR and a GRRRRRRAH, like a dozen bull­ dozers moving across torn-­ up ground. It’s loud and harsh, digging into her ears like claws, like hungry things—­ and somehow Ana knows that whatever is out there, it’s alive. The walkway below her is shaking, and suddenly she’s fighting to keep her balance; then the door whips out of her hand, and through the opening she sees a rush of brown like a moving mountain. There’s a gust of stale air, then a bloodred maw and jagged teeth as tall as fence posts and a throat that goes down down down like a slide to hell. Ana tumbles back onto the grille walkway. Her head

15

crashes against the footrest of the chair. The door bangs shut. Her left hand flies to her right hip with practiced fluidity, and suddenly there’s a dagger in her hand. Outside, the noise is a roar is a bellow is a dull throbbing moan and then gradually it’s all but gone. Long minutes tick by, uncounted except for the staccato rhythm of Ana’s breath and the pounding of her heart. Still shaking all over, she finally sits up and drags herself to her feet. Her fingers tremble as she slides the dagger back into its sheath, trying to figure out how she managed to whip out a deadly weapon with all the ease of ripping open a candy bar. She explores her vest and discovers reinforced pockets containing a short-­ handled serrated blade and a slim steel pistol. She’s obviously more than ready, but for what? For that thing? She stands up and puts both hands on the door handle. The continued silence outside, and the comforting bulk of her weapons, bolsters her courage. She thrusts the door open. Nothing. Just dust and dirt and watery sunlight, as far as her eyes can see. No slavering mouth, no nightmare monster waiting to pounce. Ana feels a flicker of doubt. What did she see, exactly? She thinks of how recently she’s woken up, thinks of her broken mind, all those memories she must have had that don’t exist anymore. And now she’s seeing monsters? She rubs the back of her head and feels the tender spot

16

that’s already rising into a lump where she slammed into the chair. Did she black out for a few seconds? Squeezing her hands into fists, Ana starts down the narrow staircase as it rocks in the dust-­ heavy blasts of wind. She studies the landscape. It’s empty—­ and desolate and untamed in a way that sharpens into a raw, spare kind of beauty. The vast basin she’s in looks as if it’s been scooped out of the sky. The cliff disappears into the distance off to the edges of her vision in both directions. Flat ground all the way, and a cliff on every edge. Ana is one tiny speck in a giant bowl-­ shaped crater. The emptiness is overwhelming, but it’s also reassuring. There’s nowhere a creature that big could possibly hide. It must have been just in my head. The ground at the base of the stairs is firm under her feet. She bends down and presses her palm into it. Zigzag cracks run along its sun-­ warmed surface. Patches of thin, yellowish grass tuft up here and there. She traces one of the cracks with her finger. Is there water under the ground somewhere? The air is breathable, obviously, but how habitable is this place? This planet. Ana circles the rocket and ducks underneath the staircase leading down from her door, moving toward a certain spot on the hull, moving toward something specific, though she has no idea what. She closes her eyes, and in her mind sees a spark, hears a loud ting of metal striking metal. When she opens her eyes, her palm rests flat on the side of the rocket at shoulder level. She slides her hand over.

17

A. A single capital letter scratched into the red paint. A for Ana. Is it juvenile to autograph what has to be a multimillion-­ dollar spaceship? Undoubtedly. Ana wonders what kind of person she was to be comfortable defacing equipment like this, but at the same time she can’t suppress a smile. She didn’t know, didn’t remember any of this, but once again, her body did. It’s just another sign that there is still hope for her past, however deeply it might be locked inside her. Then something catches her eye that she’d missed the first time around. On the hull under the staircase is a keypad. She considers the display. There are letter and number buttons, and a blank screen half the size of her hand that looks just like the fingerpad that unlocked the door to her compartment. The display tickles something she can’t remember, but when she stops trying to see herself in the memory, the knowledge is suddenly there. Ana’s fingers dart over the keypad, tapping out a ten-­ digit sequence of letters and numbers; then she presses her index finger against the center of the screen. She holds it there for a moment, then pulls it away, and the mechanism begins to vibrate. With a chirp and a burble, the panel around the screen begins to shake. She scrambles out of the way. For a second she has the panicked idea that this is the start sequence, that the rocket will take off without her and leave her stranded here on the planet. But then the rocket’s base, right above the thrusters,

18

splits open at the middle. Two wide drawers swing out in either direction. The drawer closest to Ana contains a giant backpack, nearly as tall as she is. When she peers inside, she finds ­ pockets bulging with all sorts of food and expeditionary supplies. The ­ other drawer is empty, nothing but a hole as big as a broom closet. She thinks about the empty chamber above her, the unfurled staircase. Has her mystery companion been here, too? If so, where did he or she go? With a sigh, Ana lifts her pack out of the drawer and rolls it onto the ground. The surprise and relief of finding something is gobbled up by the understanding of what her find actually means. It’s like the notice at the end of a ride that says, Goodbye! Come again soon! Only far less cheerful. And without the come again. It’s telling her she’s going to be here on this planet for a good long time. The idea is a logical one—­ you don’t cross space on a day trip, after all—­ and yet seeing this concrete proof brings reality crashing down on her. She’s here, alone, for the foreseeable future. With no memory and no idea of what happens next. Lifting her eyes to the horizon, Ana looks toward the distant cliff at the basin’s edge. The wind gusts, blowing dirt into her eyes. As she brings her hand up to shield them, she hears a very faint tick, tick, tick. It’s the same sound she noticed when she first woke up. She slides up her sleeve. There’s a band on her right wrist, a wide strap that’s in the place where a watch would be—­ but

19

it is very clearly not a watch. It’s made of a slim, bendable pleather that’s tight but not constricting. There’s no face on the band, just a dark gummy portion that might be a screen. But the greater part of the band is taken up with a row of pale numbers that are moving and changing in time with the ticking—­

00:26:43:02 00:26:43:01
The numbers are counting slowly down. Ana watches them, fascinated, registering immediately that they represent the seconds of her life, passing one by one.

00:26:43:00 00:26:42:59 00:26:42:58
She could almost swear she knows what this thing is for, but the knowledge is floating somewhere just outside her grasp. It’s obviously a countdown—­ but to what? What happens after the almost-­ twenty-­ seven hours are up? She thinks back to the letter from the mysterious J. R. Pritchett. Be mindful of the countdown, it said.

20

Ana groans. Putting the puzzle aside for the moment, she studies the rest of her band—­ circlet, that’s what it’s called—­ running her fingers over the surface. She’s not surprised when once again her fingers know just what to do. She presses a finger into the center of the tiny screen and a pencil-­thin beam of white light fountains up. The light diffuses into a prismatic rainbow stretching flat across the back of her hand. Etched in the light is a rough outline of a bare, rocky land with a cliff in the distance. She lifts her hand toward the horizon and discovers that the display exactly matches the land formations she sees ahead. Now what? Ana moves the fingers of her other hand into the band of light. She splays her fingers wide, then slowly draws them together in a pinching movement. Zoom out, she thinks. Immediately the cliff in the display shrinks in size until she has a bird’s-­ eye view of an oblong crater. There’s even a label: cranium. Right in the center is a flashing red point. Leading away from the point is a red-­ dotted line that crosses the Cranium and follows a path studded with labeled land formations: the dead forest; the high, rugged timor mountains; some kind of wide sandy stretch; then the banks of the maraqa sea. On the shore of the sea is a large red X. A map. She’s looking at a map, directions for her journey. The rocket is planted right in the middle of the Cranium. By lining up the map-­ screen, Ana now knows exactly which direction she has to go.

21

Follow the preset path, the letter said. So here she has it. Ana scans the land ahead of her and finds a landmark on the distant edge of the Cranium—­ a clump of reddish boulders that looks like a painted campfire from this distance. That will be her guidepost on this first leg of the journey. She turns off her map display by pressing the little screen, just as smoothly as if she’s done it a million times before. The numbers on the edge of the circlet are still ticking, counting down, and the knowledge makes her chest tighten. Twenty-­ six hours, and then what? Experience, her instructions told her. Discover. Survive. She doesn’t know how she’s going to do any of those things, but one thing’s no longer a mystery: she knows where she’s going, and she has a specific path to get there. For a girl with a gaping hole where her memory used to be, it feels like luxury indeed. There’s nothing left now but to get moving.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Text copyright © 2013 by Ammi-­ Joan Paquette Jacket art copyright © 2013 by Steve Stone All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Random House and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Visit us on the Web! randomhouse.com/teens Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com Library of Congress Cataloging-­in- ­Publication Data Paquette, Ammi-­Joan. Paradox / A.J. Paquette. —­1st ed. p. cm. Summary: When Ana finds herself on a desolate alien planet with no memory of her past, she must survive and discover her mission to save the Earth from a fearsome virus. ISBN 978-­0-­375-­86962-­4 (trade) —­ ISBN 978-­0-­375-­96962-­1 (lib. bdg.) ISBN 978-­0-­375-­98438-­9 (ebook) —­ ISBN 978-­0-­375-­87163-­4 (pbk.) [1. Science fiction. 2. Interplanetary voyages—­ Fiction. 3. Survival—­ Fiction. 4. Amnesia—­ Fiction. 5. Memory—­ Fiction. 6. Virus diseases—­ Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.P2119Par 2013 [E]—­ dc23 2012006431 Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

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