The competing teams of astronauts sent to explore the asteroid Keanu discovered it was, in fact, a giant spacecraft with an alien crew carrying a plea for help. A brave new frontier beckons. But it will come at a price. Without warning, the aliens transport small groups of humans to the vast interior habitats of Keanu.
Their first challenge is to survive. Their second: discover why The Architects—the unseen aliens controlling the asteroid—brought them there. The third: find a way to take control of Keanu. Because the ship is moving again.
The Architects are going home...
No one’s going to read this, I guess. Not even me. But it has to be done.
Slate battery power is better than it used to be. If I’m careful, I might have ten hours with it. (It’ll last longer because I’m not using the net, ever again.)
Anyway, here’s what I know: I’m Pav Radhakrishnan, and I’m 16.
Last week two spacecraft, one from NASA commanded by Zack Stewart, and the other from the Coalition of IndiaBrazilRussia commanded by my father, Taj, landed on the NearEarth Object named Keanu . . . and everything went to shit. First, it turned out that there were aliens living on Keanu as well as human beings, people who were killed on Earth including Stewart’s wife, Megan, and a girl named Camilla. Pretty fucking weird.
Then two of the NASA astronauts got killed and one of the Brahmas. No one’s quite sure how or why, but they’re gone.
Brahma got blown up.
Eventually four of the survivors managed to get aboard the Destiny spacecraft and head back to Earth.
Two days ago me and about a hundred other people got abducted from Earth by a big white balloon thing, some kind of spaceship sent by the NearEarth Object Keanu. Wrong place, wrong time, story of my young life. About eighty other people got collected from Houston, Texas, too.
We’re all here now, trying to figure out what the hell we do now how do we eat, sleep, live. Oh, yeah: who grabbed us and why?
And how do we get away from them?
It’s weird to think I’m never going to see my father again, and that we were really just passing each other in space.
I’m going to call this the Keanupedia.
Correction: no one HUMAN is ever going to read this.
Keanupedia by Pav, Entry #1
Where was it?
The question played in Zack Stewart’s mind like an annoying ad jingle. And those three words had been present all through the past seventyodd hours . . . hours that were very odd indeed, if, in fact, they even numbered seventy . . .
Formerly a typical middleaged American male of less than average height and weight, often dressed in khakis and polo shirts, he had become a haggardlooking man in stained and soiled long johns. Designed to be worn under a NASA EVA suit, said long johns were actually a garment filled with small plastic tubes through which water circulated. The outfit was now the only tangible reminder of Zack’s former life as an astronaut.
His life before Keanu.
Lacking a mirror and able to feel the ragged stubble on his face, he suspected that he now looked like a cartoon castaway, which, come to think of it, was exactly his state. Stranded on the interplanetary equivalent of a desert island
Steady, he told himself. You’ve been running on fumes for a week. You’re stranded on another planet. Your choices are . . . find the exit from this habitat while still breathing.
Or lie down and die.
Even that decision wasn’t simple: death on Keanu, anywhere around Keanu, didn’t seem to be permanent, or not immediately permanent.
Maybe that whole lifedeathwhathaveyou business was why he kept looking for the passage out.
Because of Megan. The last he’d seen of his wife, she had been swallowed up by a rogue Sentry and carried off to certain death. An hour later, Zack had had to fight a Sentry . . . The same one? He’d thought so at the time.
Now . . . he wasn’t so sure.
Of course now, he was five days more exhausted, five days less fed. Five days more distracted.
Because two days after loosing Megan, after killing that Sentry, one hundred and eightyseven people had arrived on Keanu. According to them, they had been literally scooped from the surface of the earth and carried across almost half a million kilometers in a pair of giant objects that resembled soap bubbles
“Great number,” Harley Drake had said. “187 is the section of the California Penal Code for murder.” Harley was Zack’s best friend, a fellow astronaut who had been crippled in the auto accident that killed Megan Stewart (for the first time, he had to remind himself, two years before the Destiny mission) only to somehow wind up on Keanu, too.
It was clear from the moment the 187 arrived that, beyond what they wore or carried, they had no clothing, few tools, no shelter, not even a common language. There was food in Keanu the habitat had obviously been designed for creatures from earth, but which era? There were edible plants, but few that Zack recognized. And how long would those supplies last? What nasty parasites or Keanuspecific bacteria were waiting to strike humans living on the Keanu diet of fruits and vegetables?
There was also a lack of organization and leadership. Plenty of candidates, but to what end? Questions like, “Can we go home?” or “Are we stuck here forever?” couldn’t be answered.
Zack was the human race’s expert on Keanu a title he would gladly have relinquished, given the shallowness of his expertise.
Not that it stopped everyone, including Harley, from bombarding him with questions, questions, questions.
Maybe that was another reason to go walkabout: for the sweet moment of silence.
There was also shame and nagging responsibility; the castaways’ presence here was largely Zack’s doing. Zack had seen the anger in more than a few faces. How long before someone picked up a rock and clubbed him to death, just for the sheer catharsis?
So, yes, Zack had wanted to get away from them.
Even from his own daughter, one of the miraculously improbable new immigrants. Well, not so improbable: Harley Drake had been her guardian. If Harley got himself nabbed, Rachel couldn’t have been far away. And Zack had since learned that the reality was the opposite: it was actually Rachel’s fault that the pair had wound up in the notsomagic 187.
But, much as he cherished the contact with his daughter, Zack feared the road ahead. Rachel’s life just like the lives of all humans on Keanu might turn out to be nasty, brutish, and short.
Wouldn’t it have been better to leave his daughter to a full life on Earth? She’d have been an orphan . . . but she’d have learned to deal with it.
Another reason to beat himself up.
He needed to think. He needed to take stock.
He needed to explore.
During the horrible end game of the First Contact on Keanu, in which his crewmates had been forced to leave him, in which Megan had been killed a second time . . . Zack had seen what he could only call Keanu’s “Factory”. He had walked the broad “streets” of this second habitat, marveled at its mysterious but somehow functional structures.
He knew that answers to their situation, and tools to improve it, were likely to be found there.
If only he could reach it.
So, as the second postarrival day ended (a period marked only by watches: the light in the habitat did not change much), Zack had simply slipped away and headed back toward the tunnel to the Factory . . . a distance surely less than a couple of kilometers.
And now here he was, as alone as any human being in history, and as vulnerable . . . painfully and slowing working his way along one wall of the habitat . . . its farthest reach almost misty in the distance, surely ten or more kilometers away, at the end of the chamber.
In best Boy Scout fashion, Zack had managed to find traces of his earlier passage, when carrying Camilla in that frantic escape. The ground surface was a nanotechbased regolith, but it acted like hardpacked dirt.
And, in places, not so hardpacked. Here were their tracks, unmistakable.
But as far as he could determine, the tunnel he had used to reach the Factory was simply gone! It was like a scene from some episode of the Arabian Nights as if a giant stone door now blocked his escape.
Had there actually been a door, Zack might have been able to locate the spot where the passage used to be . . . some fine crack or edge.
One thing he had been able to do with his spare time was to create a threedimensional image of Keanu in his head . . . the NearEarth Object was a sphere close to ninety kilometers in diameter. Zack’s crew and the competing Coalition Brahma team had landed near Vesuvius Vent, one of many craters on Keanu’s icyrocky surface. Vesuvius had been located near Keanu’s equator; both teams had descended through the vent, then traversed subterranean tunnels that had given them access to this habitat.
Zack pictured a fat cylinder running from surface to core . . . but that could be wrong: the habitat might just as easily lay at angles to the core.
No matter. He and the others were inside it, until they figured some way out. They couldn’t go back the way they had come Zack’s team had entered through a passage that was exposed to the vacuum of Keanu’s surface. And while the information from the 187 new arrivals was still jumbled, it appeared that they, too, had come to the habitat via a oneway system.
Well, Keanu’s environment had changed twice in the week Zack had been part of it. Plant growth, sky, temperatures, everything seemed variable, as if programmed by a machine somewhere (likely the case) or, a more horrible thought, entirely at random.
There was no reason to think Keanu’s environment would stay the same. A passage that had been open five days ago was now closed, as if the habitat was some kind of Rubik’s Cube. Bad news for Zack.
But who was to say it might not open again?
Besides, Zack was so unsure of his directional abilities and perceptions that he made a second, broader sweep of the area near the wall. With his back to it, he ranged a couple of hundred meters to his left, back toward the Temple and the other humans . . . found no opening or, indeed, anything but more wall.
So he retraced his steps and marched forward, deeper into the habitat. It was as if his mood sank with every ten meters. It wasn’t distance from the other survivors that caused it . . . it was the realization that his moment of freedom, adventure and exploration was about to end.
He was going to have to go back, to resume his unwanted post as titular “leader”.
And he felt completely unequipped for those roles
He stopped. The light inside the Keanu habitat was never as bright as noon on Earth; at its best, it was equivalent to a cloudy morning.
So Zack couldn’t be sure what he was seeing . . . some kind of object not far ahead, up against the wall, that was not a plant or tree, and not shaped like the rocks here, either.
He began to run, the tubes in his long johns making clicking and zipping sounds, like corduroy pants
Then he stopped, because he suddenly knew what he was seeing less than five meters away.
It was the body of a human female so mangled it appeared to have almost been torn in two. It reminded Zack of some classic crime photo California again, the Blue or was it the Black Dahlia?
Only this wasn’t some stranger unlucky enough to be the victim of a crime.
This was Megan, his reborn wife . . . killed a second time by a Sentry. She had sacrificed herself so that Zack and Camilla could live.
He knelt, noted with some relief the only relief he could summon that her eyes were closed and her features seemed peaceful.
Zack had already gone through the horror of seeing Megan dead once before, after the auto accident in Florida. That time she her body had been intact. But her expression had been different; colder, deader somehow.
This face was more . . . resigned? Accepting? Knowing?
Stop it. He was projecting. He needed to be practical. He couldn’t leave her like this
Not far from the wall he found a stand of trees with giant, fanlike leaves. There were similar trees near the Temple, and one of the survivors had already dubbed them “ginkos”.
Zack stripped off several leaves and several lengths of vine.
He returned to Megan’s body and set about the heartbreaking task of rearranging the remains . . . then gently wrapping them for transport.
Zack might not have found the passage, but he’d found closure.
Shortly after dawn on the third day, the rain stopped.
At least, that was how Rachel Stewart would have described it: “dawn” inside the Keanu human habitat meant that after nine or so hours of low light, the squigglyshaped glowtubes in the ceiling warmed up and grew somewhat brighter. A day? It was a lot like one of the few phrases Rachel remembered from the Bible “the light followed the dark,” something like that. There was no sunrise or noon . . . only the glowtubes coming on, then fourteen hours later, fading out to twilight.
The rain wasn’t much like the precipitation Rachel had known growing up in Texas, either. It was more like a heavy mist that rolled out of hidden crevices in the habitat walls, filling in the lower areas first, then expanding to a dense wet cloud that coated vegetation, buildings and people with enough moisture to cause discomfort and even leave puddles.
After two “days” of “rain”, three days after her arrival on Keanu, Rachel finally discovered something to do. Something, that is, besides feel dirty and hungry and so constantly terrified she was numb.
“We’re going to bury your mother,” Zack told her.
He had found her before she’d even rubbed the sleep out of her eyes before she’d had any breakfast not that any of the almost two hundred humans huddled in or around this weird Temple structure were eating much.
Her father had simply touched her on the shoulder, where she lay atop a bed of leaves, not far from the strange Brazilian girl Camilla nine years old, and a Revenant who had attached herself to Rachel.
Camilla woke up, too, and made it clear she was coming along, whether Rachel wanted her or not.
“How did you find her, Daddy?” Even as she said it, Rachel knew it was a stupid question. How else but by wandering around in this big stupid tube? And, really, what difference did it make?
Fortunately, he father recognized her question for what it was: nervous chatter. He simply took Rachel by the hand and with Camilla following several steps behind led her away from the Temple to the nearest rocks, to a bundle of ginko leaves that looked more like a giant seed pod than a human being.
This was the body of Megan Stewart? Her mother? In Rachel’s mind, she had knelt by her mother’s Texas grave as recently as a week ago . . . the same day she had had the terrifying and bizarre experience of talking with her via NASA television.
Rachel’s head had been aching the moment she woke up. Now it felt as though it would split along the hairline.
“I found her this morning,” her father said.
“Back that way,” he said, pointing further down the habitat . . . which in Rachel’s mind was the northern or lower end, not that direction had any meaning.
The habitat was roughly cylindrical, or halfcylindrical. There was a floor, and a ceiling that, at its greatest, was at least a few hundred meters high. The floor was rolling, actual earth and rocklike terrain covered with various kinds of plant life, including some goodsized trees. The sloping walls looked like cliff faces. Rachel and those who had been scooped from Earth and shipped across four hundred thousand kilometers of space had emerged into the habitat at one end . . . what she now thought of as “south”.
The Temple building, a goodsized pile of material that stood four stories tall and covered as much area as a baseball diamond, sat near that southern end. Although Rachel hadn’t explored more than a few hundred meters beyond the Temple, she had already decided that the Temple rested on high ground . . . everything further north was “lower”.
Around them people were stirring. It reminded Rachel of the ragged wakeup at the only Girl Scout camp she’d attended, when she was twelve. No one had seemed happy or healthy then, and this morning on Keanu was no different.
Rachel had gone through the insane emotional rollercoaster of seeing her mother killed in a car crash in Florida two years ago, then alive again via television here on Keanu . . . only to learn upon arrival that she had died a second time.
“How did she die again?” Zack had had told her, but it was that first hour, a very confusing time.
“A Sentry killed her.”
“A Sentry?” Rachel hadn’t spent nearly as much time with her father as she wanted of course, given their situation and her mental state, the right amount of contact would have been constant. She had wanted to cling to her father and not let go.
“One of the other inhabitants,” he said, clearly too tired to offer much more.
“You mean, like, alien inhabitant.” Zack nodded. “Is it still around?” If this Sentry killed her mother, clearly it was a creature to be avoided.
“I don’t think so. I stabbed it,” Zack said. “Camilla helped.” Rachel noticed that the littler girl was still lurking a few meters away. Hearing her name, she smiled and moved closer, to Rachel’s intense annoyance.
“Was that the only one?” Rachel asked.
Zack shrugged. “Can’t say. There was a passage way between here and the Factory. But I think it’s closed now.”
Rachel had no idea what that meant, and no chance to ask, because Harley Drake and Sasha Blaine were approaching. Harley was going slowly, using his arms to power his wheelchair across the bumpy ground.
Rachel felt a rush of pity for the man. God, it was so easy to forget what he was like before the accident . . . a pilot, a jock, a total womanizer or so her mother Megan said once. Now look at him
Then there was Sasha Blaine, the Valkyrie math whiz, eternally perky. Even she looked pale and worn out.
Rachel realized that her father had told the couple about her mother’s body before he’d told her! She didn’t much like that.
They exchanged grim good mornings, and equally uncomfortable hugs. Sasha said a hello in German to Camilla, earning a smile for her efforts. Then she produced a small shovel. “I rescued this from one of the other teams,” Sasha said.
“It’ll have to do,” Zack said. “Let’s get this over with.”
It was her job.
They made their way slowly to the south, a little uphill, into the deep dark recesses of a corner of the habitat Rachel had not visited. She quickly grew tired and then frustrated by the distance. “Why are we going all this way?” she snapped. “Didn’t we bury the others“ Two people had died during the awful first arrival day.
“We don’t have a cemetery, kiddo,” Harley Drake said. “Your dad has his reasons.”
“We’re here,” Zack said.
They had reached a cavernous opening inside which Rachel could see strange celllike structures lining the walls. “We called this the Beehive,” Zack said, gesturing with alarming weakness. “It’s where we came through from the vent. It’s where . . . Megan . . . your mother . . . came from.”
Camilla stepped forward, as if eager to explore. Sasha held her back.
Harley jabbed the shovel into the ground. “Got any particular place in mind?” he asked Zack.
Zack looked around, then stepped out into the open. “Right here, I think.” He turned to Rachel and offered the first smile she had seen from her father in days. “This is a little like St. Bernadette’s, right?” That was the name of Megan Stewart’s earthly resting place, a cemetery near the space center.
Harley rolled his chair toward the spot, but Sasha took the shovel. “Let me.”
Harley began to protest, but Zack said, “Hey, Harls, why don’t you grab some of those melons?” He pointed to a nearby tree laden with large red fruit of some kind.
Rachel knew Harley’s expressions, and what flashed across his face was fury less at Zack or Sasha than his situation. But he accepted the assignment, though not without a final grumble: “Maybe I should volunteer to tastetest them, too.”
Sasha quickly and efficiently scratched out the borders of a grave, then dug the shovel into the earth. “Oh, thank God,” she said. “It’s loose. I was afraid it would be hard.”
The tall woman from Yale worked methodically as Zack simply watched, hands folded over his chest. Camilla wandered all around them, careful never to go any closer to the Beehive. Eventually she joined Harley, helping carry a handful of the red melons back to the gravesite.
After several minutes, Sasha stopped, clearly exhausted. “Uh, how deep?” she said.
“Tradition suggests two meters,” Harley said.
“This is hardly a traditional environment,” Zack said. “Keanu will . . . absorb her, I think.” He took the shovel from Sasha then, jumped into the grave, which by then was close to a meter deep, and furiously continued the digging.
Emerging, hands and arms trembling from effort, Sasha patted Rachel on the shoulder. “Almost over,” she said.
As promised, moments later Zack slid the shovel toward Harley. “That’s it,” he said.
Sasha reached the bundle that held Megan’s body before Zack did. Rachel did, too. It seemed to her that Zack hesitated . . . as if relishing this last moment of contact, no matter how bizarre.
Finally, moving carefully, the three gently lowered the remains into the grave. Zack stepped back. Sasha looked so drained that Rachel picked up the shovel and began covering the body.
Zack took over, and then it was all done.
Except for the words. “Do you want to say something?” Harley said. His voice was so gentle he didn’t sound like Harley Drake.
Zack took a big breath, his chest swelling, and said, “I don’t think I can.” And then he simply broke down.
Which triggered unstoppable tears in Rachel, too. In her head, she was hearing Megan’s voice again . . . not the weird way it had sounded during their last exchange via NASA TV, or the sharp tones of a mothertoteendaughter, but the voice Rachel had heard as a child, being rocked to sleep or comforted after a nightmare. “There, there, baby girl.”
Zack pulled her to him, and there they stood . . . two sobbing wrecks.
“I’ll say something.” It was Harley Drake. “’Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ . . . it’s not just words, it’s a commandment. Rest in peace, Megan Doyle Stewart. You’ve earned it.”
Almost on command, the group of five turned and began walking or rolling away. Only Camilla lingered, staring at the grave, making a sad little gesture with her hands.
Rachel shook her head, trying to stop weeping. And found herself laughing.
“What’s that?” Zack said, his eyes red.
“Don’t you think it’s funny, Daddy?”
“You’ve buried Mom twice now, on two different planets.”
Her father stared at her. His eyes went wide, an expression Rachel had rarely seen, and always feared. But in an instant the scary face was gone, replaced by something more benign. He simply hugged her
Suddenly they heard a terrifying sound a raspy screech, like the cry of a demented eagle. Only there couldn’t be eagles here . . . certainly nothing was flying. “Jesus Christ!” Harley said. “What was that?”
Sasha pointed, just as, quicker than any human had ever moved, a creature shot out of the trees and snatched one of the red melons from Camilla’s hands. It ran toward the Beehive.
“Come on,” Zack said. He was going to follow it.
Harley snapped, “Why do we care? Let it eat the thing!”
“I want to know what that animal is,” Zack said. “And
whether or not that melon is poisonous.” He headed off, showing more energy than Rachel had yet seen. She and the others followed, an increasing distance behind.
“Not to be argumentative,” Sasha said, “but that animal might be able to eat all kinds of things that would kill us.”
“Not if it’s a monkey,” Rachel said. She had spotted it again . . . the creature was perched atop a goodsized boulder near the Beehive entrance, banging the melon until it broke open.
“I don’t know if that’s a monkey,” Zack said. “Its skin looked too smooth . . . oh.”
Now they all had a good view of the creature on the rock, which was greedily stuffing melon guts into its monkey face.
“It’s a Vervet monkey,” Sasha said. She turned to Rachel. “Good eyes.”
Rachel couldn’t have named the creature, but something about its head shape, hands, tail and running posture had just said “monkey”.
“Don’t they have fur?” Harley said.
“It’s probably got fur under that harder second skin,” Zack said. “When things come out of the Beehive, that’s what they wear . . . at least a couple of layers.”
“How do we know it came from the Beehive?” Harley said.
Sasha pointed at relatively fresh tracks that led back into the Beehive. “Look for yourself.”
“Does that mean this little guy was resurrected?” Harley said.
“It might,” Zack said. He turned to Rachel. “Where on Earth are Vervet monkeys found?”
Now she was embarrassed, because she didn’t know. But Sasha rescued her. “They’re found in the Far East, particularly India.”
Harley and Zack exchanged looks. “That sort of fits,” Zack said. He nodded to Camilla. “So far we’ve only seen humans being brought back, and every one of those had a direct personal link to one of the humans here.”
Harley snorted. “So, if I get this . . . we’re wondering which of the Bangalore people is hot for a monkey?”
Sasha slapped Harley on the shoulder. Meanwhile, Rachel was keeping an eye on the monkey . . . which was busy devouring the melon while staying vigilant.
Zack was heading deeper into the Beehive. “I wonder what else is in here?” Rachel found the whole place creepy in the extreme, but she wasn’t going to let her father out of her sight.
She followed. So, closely, did Camilla, then Harley and Sasha.
The Beehive was dark, except for light from the large opening into the habitat itself, and from a weird glow emanating from the rectangular things along the walls.
Camilla made a sound and clutched Rachel’s hand. “Daddy, what are these things?”
“We called them cells,” Zack said. “They’re some kind of incubators.”
“Is this where Mom came from?”
Zack nodded. The whole idea made Rachel shudder. “You know, Daddy“
She and the others heard another strange sound. But this wasn’t the screeching of a reborn Vervet monkey . . . this was a pitiful yowl.
“God, there wouldn’t be a baby here?” Sasha said.
Harley rolled forward and around a corner. “No, I think we’ve got that covered elsewhere.” Rachel knew that the Bangalore object had brought a mother and newborn child to Keanu. “Zack!”
Zack had been searching down another alley in the Beehive. Now he ran to Harley. Rachel wasn’t in a hurry, however; she wasn’t sure she wanted to see what was making that awful sound.
It was coming from a cell a meter off the ground . . . there was light inside as well as the shadow of a creature another animal, Rachel thought thrashing in agony. “Let’s get it out of there,” Zack said, chipping away at the cell’s membrane with the shovel.
As soon as he’d created a tear, he and Sasha peeled back the membrane and reached inside.
They pulled out a dog.
Or what looked and sounded like a dog that had lost its master. The creature had a snout and four legs, but was encased in that leathery second skin.
Which was itself coated in slime from the cell. Which the dog immediately showered on Rachel and the others as it thrashed and shook itself. With Sasha pinning the animal, Zack managed to peel the second skin away from its face.
Able to breathe, and see, the animal calmed down. “Anybody here a dog person?” Zack said.
“I grew up with a border collie,” Sasha said. She was making soothing sounds as she gently peeled away more of the covering.
“I was actually wondering what breed this was.”
“Looks like a Golden Lab mix,” Harley said. “Not that I’m an expert.”
Just then the dog wrestled itself out of Zack and Sasha’s grasp and performed a violent shiver, obviously trying to free itself of what remained of the second skin.
“Poor thing,” Rachel said. Not that she was a dog fan.
“I wonder who this guy belongs to,” Sasha said.
The dog looked right at Rachel . . . tongue hanging out. Here he comes, she thought, ready to back away.
But the dog only took a step toward Rachel. And she couldn’t help reaching out to pat its head. The dog responded by licking her hand.
“Well,” Zack said, “we know who he belongs to for the moment.”
“Rachel, you ought to give your dog a name,” Harley said.
“He’s not my dog!” The only dog Rachel had ever liked had been in some old television show. “All right, call him ’Cowboy’”.
Suddenly Cowboy barked. He had smelled or seen something off in the reaches of the Beehive.
Rachel and the others instinctively clustered together. “God, what now?” Sasha said.
Zack hefted the shovel just as another creature emerged from the shows. Like Cowboy, this one was fourlegged and of Earthly design. “Is that a cow?” Rachel said.
Harley laughed out loud. “What do you suppose our barbequeloving Texas friends are going to say to that?”
“Actually,” Sasha said, “I’ll be more interested in what our friends from Bangalore will say to what our Texas friends will say?”
Rachel thought that was pretty darn funny, but Zack only grunted.
There’s another thing we won’t have on Keanu, she realized.
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